(1915-1985) Working name of US actor, screenwriter, producer and director George Orson Welles, who despite his intimate association with one of the most infamous events in the history of sf – as director and star of the notorious 1938 Radio play The War of the Worlds – returned only intermittently to work in the genre. Yet so well remembered is the broadcast, that to this day his name evokes the concept of alien Invasion, associated media hoaxes and theories of mass panic. This notoriety would prove a double-edged sword: though The War of the Worlds helped Welles to unlock doors in Hollywood, he found himself increasingly ostracized by the studio system, and his many notable successes frequently overshadowed by the mythic power of the broadcast.
Welles was a child prodigy and a stage star with his own theatre company by the age of 22. A parallel career in radio reaped great financial rewards, where his extraordinary vocal range meant he was in huge demand by the thriving New York Radio scene of the late 1930s. Between 1937 and 1938 Welles played the supernaturally endowed crime fighter The Shadow on the Mutual Broadcasting System, though oddly it appeared that his vaunted talents failed him when it came to the sinister trademark laugh of The Shadow: the show resorted to stock recordings of the actor Frank Readick, who had played the role prior to Welles.
Capitalizing on the success of his acclaimed stage company The Mercury Theatre, Welles secured in 1938 his own radio show on the CBS network, to be simply called The Mercury Theatre on the Air. He and his colleagues enthusiastically set about dramatizing a wide selection of stories culled from already published fiction, beginning with Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), though it was to be their one and only genre sf story that was to catapult Welles to superstardom, when listeners took their Halloween eve production of H G Wells's The War of the Worlds (April-December 1897 Pearson's; 1898) to be a real account of a Martian invasion.
Courted by Hollywood in the aftermath of the broadcast, Welles signed a contract with the RKO studio, and was immediately under pressure to make his first film a production of The War of the Worlds, though it remains unclear whether this was to be an adaptation of the original novel or a retelling of events surrounding the broadcast. However, he firmly resisted, and the project was shelved while still at the discussion stage. Given the groundbreaking techniques he employed on his eventual first studio film Citizen Kane (1941), it is tantalizing to imagine what a War of the Worlds film directed by Welles might have been like.
In the immediate aftermath of the broadcast, H G Wells had professed displeasure at the liberties taken in the adaptation of his novel; but in 1940 in San Antonio, an enterprising journalist at a local radio station realized both men were in town together and engineered their first and only meeting, during which Wells betrayed no sign of lingering irritation. In fact they seemed to take great pleasure in each other's company, making play of the similarities in their names and happily discussing the impact of the broadcast on listeners.
During this period Welles was a tireless radio broadcaster on behalf of the American war effort and to this end had starred in a series of propaganda broadcasts called Ceiling Unlimited. Designed to offer rousing support to the Air Force, the 21 December 1942 episode strayed (uniquely for the series) into fantastical realms, with a humorous piece on Gremlins, the mythical creatures said to be responsible for mechanical failure and sabotage of aircraft – as also depicted by Roald Dahl in The Gremlins (1943 chap).
The decision by Welles to adapt The War of the Worlds in 1938 seems not to have been influenced by any significant affinity for sf; the rights were available when his next scheduled production ran into script difficulties. But when the opportunity presented itself, Welles was perfectly happy to dabble in the genre, as for instance when he starred in the first of a two-part radio dramatization of Donovan's Brain (1943) by Curt Siodmak, and produced for the long-running and well-regarded CBS radio crime anthology, Suspense (18 May 1944).
In 1947 Isaac Asimov recorded in his diary an approach by Welles for film rights to his short story "Evidence" (September 1946 Astounding), which came to nothing. In 1949, clearly profiting from his War of the Worlds fame, Welles wrote the introduction to a ghost-edited collection of short stories entitled Invasion from Mars (anth 1949) in which he professed himself "addicted to the field of fantasy known to literature as science fiction." Peter Bogdanovich hints in This is Orson Welles (1992) that the introduction may also have been ghosted. Besides the Howard Koch script for The War of the Worlds, this book reprinted stories by Ray Bradbury, Robert A Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. Welles also provided an introduction to S-F The Year's Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy (anth 1956), edited by Judith Merril.
In later years, Welles occasionally found himself on the fringes of the genre. The disastrous spoof James Bond film Casino Royale (1967), in which he played the villain Le Chiffre, featured several sf tropes including a flying saucer (> UFOs) and Robot doubles; but it was to The War of the Worlds that Welles returned most often, as he relived and embellished the story on the chat-show circuit; he also participated in a brilliant spoof on the television series Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In (26 October 1970) during which he narrates a radio horror story, oblivious to the mounting chaos behind his back as the struggling sound man is attacked by a Monster. In F for Fake (1974), Welles briefly intercut his irreverent documentary about forgery in the art world with reminiscences of the broadcast, utilizing stock footage from the film Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. Additionally, Welles narrated How Science Fiction Viewed the Moon (1969) as part of the CBS Moon landing coverage; the film Future Shock (1972), based on the book by the Futures Studies pundit Alvin Toffler; Who's Out There (1975), a short film for NASA about the search for life on other worlds – principally Mars – which gave him another excuse to reminisce about The War of the Worlds; the trailer for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) directed by Robert Wise; and voice work – his final cinema involvement – for the animated film The Transformers – The Movie (1986), a somewhat ignoble return to sf; Welles was reportedly unhappy at voicing what he derisively dismissed (to his biographer Barbara Leaming) as a toy.
The enduring influence of his War of the Worlds broadcast on sf and the wider Media Landscape should not be underestimated. The broadcast has often been emulated and is frequently cited in the news as a metaphor for unexpected Disaster and hoaxes. Less obviously, The War of the Worlds could be said to have pioneered the interweaving of news broadcasts into fictional narratives, now almost de rigueur in sf disaster movies such as Independence Day (1996) and Armageddon (1998). The former comes close to being The War of the Worlds in all but name, owing as much to Orson Welles as to H G Wells. [JDG]
see also: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the 8th Dimension; Alternative 3; Hadley Cantril; Walter B Gibson; Virginia Hamilton; Richard Adams Locke; The Night that Panicked America; The Shadow; Spaced Invaders.
George Orson Welles
born Kenosha, Wisconsin: 6 May 1915
died Hollywood, Los Angeles, California: 10 October 1985
works as nominal editor
about the actor/director
- Peter Bogdanovich. This is Orson Welles (New York: HarperCollins, 1992) [nonfiction: annotated interviews with career chronology and other editorial matter: hb/photographic]
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